Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies

Emily Dickenson’s idea of telling the truth slant should give pause. Why would one want to tell the truth slant? Isn’t a characteristic of the honesty that both seeks and represents the truth its directness? Be straight with me, we say – tell me the truth. In Plato’s Theatetus, Socrates separates himself in just this regard from Protagoras and the Sophists: he seeks the truth in the clearest possible, most direct language; they seek to persuade through the art of rhetoric. While purporting to aim at the truth, their true target is their interlocutor’s susceptibility to an appearance of the truth. Plato established this distinction for centuries to come, so that long after, in the seventeenth century, in prefatory verse to Joseph Glanvill’s The Vanity of Dogmatism, an admirer would praise Glanvill by writing,

You have removed the old antipathy
‘Tween Rhetorick and Philosophy,
And in your book have clothed Socratic sense
In Demosthenian eloquence.

It was ever so that language can lead us here or lead us there, and that we might confuse one for the other. Dickenson, of course, was writing of poetry. Her poem is among those – Archibald MacLeish’s Ars Poetica is another – that make the case with ironic directness that the way of the poet is better oblique. The poetry is not a message, but a method; it doesn’t lead us directly to a meaning, but conveys its very self in its obliquity. It doesn’t travel roundabout in a circuit; it completes a circuit.

That’s poetry.

But another crucial word in Dickenson is “success,” which needn’t be in telling the truth – and which “in circuit lies.” When not poetic, this success, which might be not in telling “all” the truth, but in telling only some of it, in words that misdirect or obscure, may be found in some goal other than the truth and that suits a purpose. “Bias” and to a lesser degree slanted suggested something ingrained and automatic, not necessarily conscious and controlled. Slanting, sounds more active. Obliquity is a method. Propaganda, which can be sophisticated, is nonetheless not as sophisticated as obliquity. The aim of propaganda is always clear, even if one mistakes it for the truth. Not so, by its nature, with obliquity. Dickenson writes further of “truth’s superb surprise” but life has many surprises, and sometimes it may be to discover that you were obliquely taken to where you didn’t know you were going.

“Pro-life”? Well, sure; isn’t everyone but the Reaper? Ah, you mean anti-abortion rights? Why didn’t you say so? “Pro-choice”? Of what, career? Habitation? If you have to ask what someone means by the words, he has wasted them or wasn’t straight with you, so with euphemism, though it is a form of obliquity, sometimes, as in “restroom,” the purpose is to eliminate the shit, while with “death tax,” the aim is to pile it on.

Novice readers of literature, who at some point are nearly everyone, are like babes in the woods, for whom the notion of the unreliable narrator – “once upon a time” – does not naturally occur. The storyteller’s authority is a garden path not to climactic truth, but to someone’s rationalization or avoidance. Psychotherapists, like ShrinkWrapped, are readers too, though, like professors of literature, trained readers. They know the patient is an unreliable narrator. The patient is telling one story; the therapist is reading for another, which, in fact, emerges from secondary, tangential, and trace elements of the direct narration – even from what is omitted from it. Where the patient in such cases leads the therapist, she takes him obliquely.

In the ongoing debate over Wikileaks, for instance, here is one perspective:

What started out as a small group of activists operating a clearing house for leaked secret documents, WikiLeaks looks like it is turning into an international grass roots movement that needs no central figure to fight a “data war” in the name of Internet freedom.

Here is another from the same post:

“Our long-term goal is to build a strong, transparent platform to support whistleblowers, while at the same time encouraging others to start similar projects.”

And a third:

The activists are now encouraging supporters to search through leaked cables on the WikiLeaks site and publish summaries of ones that have been least exposed, labeling them so they are hard to find by any authority seeking to quash them….

In an overnight blog post, Anonymous announced a change of strategy, saying it now aimed to publish parts of the confidential U.S. diplomatic cables as widely as possible and in ways that made them as hard as possible to trace….

Internet activists operating under the name “Anonymous” temporarily brought down this week the websites of credit card giants MasterCard and Visa — both of which had stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks….

The activists had previously been using denial of service attacks, in which they bombarded the Web servers of the perceived enemies of WikiLeaks with requests that crashed the sites, in an operation named “Operation Payback.”

And still a fourth, directly from Julian Assange (pdf):

To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not. Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.

Authoritarian power is maintained by conspiracy

These represent at least three, even four, different representations of what Wikileaks and all that it has engendered now represent. The question I raise here is what it means when accounts and arguments over Wikileaks omit consideration of any of these. There are a variety of explanations for omission, but one characteristic it lacks is directness, for where one picks up after the gap created by the omission who – especially those who don’t know of it – can anticipate? How oblique now is the path of argument?

Here then is the truth to set them free. Free from the manipulations and constraints of the mendacious. Free to choose their path, free to remove the ring from their noses, free to look up into the infinite voids and choose wonder over whatever gets them though. And before this feeling to cast blessings on the profits and prophets of truth, on the liberators and martyrs of truth, on the Voltaires, Galileos, and Principias of truth, on the Gutenburgs, Marconis and Internets of truth, on those serial killers of delusion, those brutal, driven and obsessed miners of reality, smashing, smashing, smashing every rotten edifice until all is ruins and the seeds of the new.

How many who have argued in support of Wikileaks see this as a destination? And if they do, are we really having that debate?

As another example, a longer tale of narratives, directions, and misdirections, yesterday on This Week, Christiane Amanpour had as guests Israeli Kadima opposition leader Tsipi Livni and Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad. In Amanpour’s introduction to the joint interview, and during it, she emphasized Israel refusal, now, to renew a halt on “settlement activity” in order to gain Palestinian agreement to a resumption of peace talks. This framed the entire discussion in terms of Israeli obstructionism to talks. What Amanpour did not address at any point:

1.      that the Palestinians refuse to engage in talks without first receiving a concession, while Israel does not

2.      that the Israelis are asked to make a concession to Palestinians to have peace talks, while the Palestinians are not asked for a concession – for instance, the elimination of government-sponsored and school-based anti-Semitic pronouncements and indoctrination?

3.      that Israel had nonetheless just suspended “settlement activity” for ten months in order to bring the Palestinians to talks, but that the Palestinians had waited until just a month and a half before the end of the suspension to enter into the negotiations, hardly time in which to make progress

4.      that the “settlements” in question are housing activity in Jerusalem, an area of dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians, to be negotiated, and that asking for suspension there prior to talks is asking for a conceptual concession without negotiation.

How different might the course of discussion be, might the ever developing and redeveloping narrative be, were these elements included in the frame of the discussion? What is the destination it appears we are so directly headed toward; where is it we are really being taken?

Which “brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”


(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrhayata/1875046344/ / CC)


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